This is me, making La Peche Chocolate Velvet for Christmas. I rarely do much exotic baking anymore, so it was fun for me to indulge in that kind of creativity.

Yesterday I finished my revise and resubmit on Sapphire. I’m pretty pleased with the result – now it’s just cross my fingers time. I did a final spell check before I sent it off. I’m lucky enough to be a pretty good speller, so spell check mainly catches my odd words. Amusingly, Word doesn’t recognize a number of words I use. Among them:

Tsk, tsked and tsking

The winner, however, is:

Rebuttoning, which Word suggested should be “rebut toning.”

Try using that in a sentence. “I would like to rebut toning arguments, but I know I need to work out more.” Erm.

And really, “skeezy” isn’t a word? (Incidentally, Blogger agrees it’s not.)

I like words. Always have. When I was in 7th grade, I started a list of good words. I had stuff on there like exquisite, writhe and oscillate. Words are my medium and I figure I get to work my medium as I see fit. Which means I might make up words now and again.

To me, this is very much like messing around with a recipe while cooking. When you first start baking, or even the first time you make a recipe, it’s best to stick very close to instructions. You have to learn the basics of how a dish comes together. It’s part chemistry, part biology, part magic. But, after you have that stuff down, then you can mess with it. I often reduce sugar and salt. But then, I kind of know how much sugar I really need to make the crystalline structure work correctly, or to feed the yeast. Salt creates a crucial balance to the sweet and brings forth other flavors, but it doesn’t take much.

A good cook also knows how to substitute ingredients. Not that a writer runs out of words like I might run out of, oh, almond extract. (All the grocery stores in Tucson sold out of almond extract – what was up with that??) But, after you’ve used the word “touch” 72 times, you start looking to replace some of those with alternatives. You get creative with it.

Sure, sometimes the substitute doesn’t work. The bread doesn’t rise, the souffle falls flat. Sometimes it’s brilliant.

The best part about writing is, until it hits the press, you can always tweak it.

Left Turns

This morning, as I ran on the treadmill, I saw a woman step out of the Spin class in the shop next door. She’d bundled into her parka, had her hat and gloves tucked under her arm and held her smartphone in the other. Reading some message on the phone, she smiled, pleasure suffusing her face.

I like that about seeing people texting and tweeting and messaging on their various handheld devices. It’s kind of replaced the old pastime of watching people greet each other at the airport, the hugs, squeals and laughter. People’s faces respond to the messages, making the same expressions they’d use in a face-to-face conversation. They grin. Sometimes they laugh out loud.

It’s not always the frowning and blankness detractors like to cite.

Marcella taught an online class recently on using acting devices in writing. She asked me to read over a description of a “left turn” that she wanted to use as an example. Here’s her lesson:

You’ve gone out for the evening, you and your spouse. It’s the first nice dinner you’ve had since the birth of your child. Dinner was relaxing. You actually got to have a glass of wine. You engaged in adult conversation. It was lovely. When you get home, the babysitter greets you at the door with a smile saying everything went fine. The baby is asleep. Looked in not ten minutes ago. You pay the sitter and she hops in her car for the short drive home. You sigh, content, as you and your spouse make your way upstairs to look in on the baby before getting ready for bed. Except, the nursery is still. Silent. Your heart stutters. You reach down to touch the infant. Cold. No breath. No life.

How do you react?

This was an acting scene set up. It isn’t real. Not here. Not today. Shake off any residual emotion, then come back with your response. When I asked, “how do you react?” What was your first, gut response? To scream? That impulse is the most common response to this exercise. It’s expected, which means it’s also a little trite as far as emotional reactions go. This is the point at which a director yells, “Take a left!” meaning, don’t go for the easy reaction. Do something fresh.

We’re not? here to talk about how to find the unexpected actions and emotions in scenes, but actions and emotions that ring true on a gut level for you and for your reader. In the scene set-up above, the actress playing the part turned to the man behind her, all the breath rushing audibly from her lungs, and began pounding her fists against his chest as he stood staring at the crib.

I’m Marcella Burnard. I write science fiction romance for Berkley Sensation. I also spent three years in the acting conservatory at Cornish College of the Arts, which resulted in a BFA in acting. It was there that one of our teachers gave us this scene as a way to introduce text analysis so that we could break down a scene, moment by moment, identify what the people in the scene want (their objectives) and then decide how each person goes about getting what they want (their tactics).

This idea stuck with me, that it can be fruitful for characters to behave in an unexpected way, to take a left turn instead of a right. (A recurring conversation during Christmas was that UPS and Fed Ex drivers are instructed to use only right turns, never left – urban myth or no?) I loved this example of a left turn – a simple thing that instantly enriches the characters and deepens the story.

It’s easy to write about people frowning at their Blackberries, to describe the unsettlingly blank expressions of teens absorbed with the iPhones. Seeing that woman’s smile this morning gave me ideas for ways to show all kinds of character from the one-sided silent conversations people have all around us.

Also? We followed a Fed Ex truck and it totally turned left. It’s all around us.


This is from our bedroom window, just a few minutes ago – at 9 in the morning.

I used to put up decorative flags. Oh, I still have them all, but since we moved to Santa Fe, I haven’t put them up. Decorative flags somehow just look wrong on an adobe-style house. But on our old house in Wyoming, I’d change the flags every two weeks or so. I don’t know that anyone cared but me. Still, it was a way to celebrate the changing of the seasons, the passing of holidays. This weekend I would have taken down the flag with the New Year’s sparkly champagne glasses and put up the silkscreen one with the wolves.

Something about early January makes me think of the scavenging wolves, their distant howls on the long, cold nights. Now there are coyotes out my window. One had a rabbit. The long-ago peasant in me wants to stoke the fire and bar the door.

It’s easy to let fears hold us back, reasonable or not. Every time we set foot outside our safe homes, we risk the wolves. Or, so our atavistic selves tell us. The adrenal system doesn’t know wolves from business meetings – it just hears that we’re stressed and fires up.

Some friends and I started up a new venture on January 1 – the Word Whores – and I put up my first post yesterday, explaining why I’d identify myself as a whore in front of all the world. It felt scary and uncertain. Was that a wolf calling in the distance? The last line was maybe too much, too over the edge. I may be bold, but rarely brash. My grandmother’s voice reminded me to be a lady. Being tacky was her greatest sin.

Worse, none of my usual writing buddies were around to consult with me. I wanted someone to tell me it wasn’t too much. I needed to get the post up.

I actually dithered and I really hate dithering.

So I hit the button. PUBLISH POST. There it went, into the immortality of nothing-ever-truly-dies-on-the-internet. Scary, but also liberating. Something like ten minutes later, one of my friends came back from making breakfast, read it and gave me the thumbs up. By then I didn’t need it. I’d made my choice. There’s always strength in a decision made, I think.

I might get criticized yet. The scavengers are always hungry. But I won’t hide in my house.

The world belongs to me, too.